Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd review

by Steve Walker / 23 March, 2012
Early on in William Boyd’s new spy thriller, his hero consults a psychiatrist for help with his impotence. The doctor suggests an unconventional treatment called “parallelism”. Therein lies the grand opportunity for Boyd, one of the great storytellers writing today.

Dandyish English actor Lysander Rief approaches the psychiatrist amid the growing unease of pre-World War I Vienna. His doctor’s “cure” relies on French philosopher Henri Bergson’s theories of the “fonction fabulatrice”, or ability to transport oneself into a parallel universe to construct different realities.

By reimagining historical events, Rief overcomes his handicap, using the ability that is also his workaday skill as an actor. Rief is recruited by Britain’s War Office and uses his talent for inhabiting different forms of the real to trace a deadly leak of secrets from London. This data, encoded and communicated to the Germans via Geneva, affects progress on the Western Front. Our gallant hero must find its source. At this point, the worlds of John Buchan and Erskine Childers intrude.

Sadly, however, Boyd does not really exploit the opportunity to probe this idea for its full creative implications – surprising, given his interest in the spy genre and issues of duplicity and masks. His choice of actor-hero hints at the notion of professional disguise. His structure, which weaves third-and first person narrative, also suggests interplay between the public and the private.

And Bergson’s fonction fabulatrice nods towards Boyd’s own art as creator of stories. But that’s all these are – just suggestions or hints. Boyd’s problem lies mostly in his ramshackle and hackneyed plot.

It recalls the dark deeds of Buchan’s Richard Hannay – and does it in a rather disingenuous way. Twists, coincidences and interrelated characters are all too abundant. Ultimately, it relies on that most frustrating of author’s devices, the sudden denouement that depends on the unravelling of a secret withheld from the reader until the hero explains.

John Le Carré does it so much better. Boyd’s difficulties extend to characters. Often stereotypes, or perversions of them, they fit the idea of masks, but don’t engage the reader. Even Rief remains an enigma. The traitor is labelled “Andromeda”, the beautiful naked girl chained to the rocks in Greek mythology – a bizarre choice for a bureaucratic mole. This Andromeda strains too hard for credibility. Disappointing, after the promise of such recent Boyd novels as Ordinary Thunderstorms and Restless.

WAITING FOR SUNRISE, by William Boyd (Bloomsbury, $36.99).Steve Walker is head of English at King’s College, Auckland.
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

Truth and Lye: New perspectives on the brilliance of Len Lye
85816 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Arts

Truth and Lye: New perspectives on the brilliance …

by Sally Blundell

New essays on New Zealand-born US artist Len Lye elevate him to the status of Australasia’s most notable 20th-century artist.

Read more
Brain activity may hold the secret to helping infertile couples
86046 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Health

Brain activity may hold the secret to helping infe…

by Nicky Pellegrino

For about a third of infertility cases in New Zealand, there is no obvious reason why seemingly fertile couples struggle to conceive.

Read more
Farewells on the Auckland wharves, captured by photographer John Rykenberg
85964 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Farewells on the Auckland wharves, captured by pho…

by Frances Walsh

More than one million images from Rykenberg Photography, taken around Auckland, are now in the Auckland Libraries Collection. But who are the people?

Read more
'Termite hell' for Golden Bay man after he woke covered in insects
86027 2018-01-18 11:59:55Z Environment

'Termite hell' for Golden Bay man after he woke co…

by Hamish Cardwell

A Golden Bay man spending his first night in his new house says he woke to find his bed, walls and floor covered in hundreds of creepy crawlies.

Read more
Ten ‘stealth microplastics’ to avoid if you want to save the oceans
86015 2018-01-18 11:18:49Z Environment

Ten ‘stealth microplastics’ to avoid if you want t…

by Sharon George and Deirdre McKay

There's a growing movement to stop the amount of wasteful plastic that goes into our oceans, but what about the tiny bits we can hardly see?

Read more
It's time to chlorinate New Zealand's drinking water
86001 2018-01-18 09:41:15Z Social issues

It's time to chlorinate New Zealand's drinking wat…

by The Listener

The inconvenience to chlorine refuseniks is tiny compared with the risk of more suffering and tragedy from another Havelock North-style contamination.

Read more
Climate change: New study finds worst case scenario might not be as bad
85994 2018-01-18 08:27:48Z Environment

Climate change: New study finds worst case scenari…

by Charlie Dreaver

Global warming's worst case scenario may not be as bad as previously thought, a new climate change study says.

Read more
The science of sibling rivalries
85949 2018-01-18 00:00:00Z Science

The science of sibling rivalries

by Sally Blundell

Who was the favourite? Who got the most? Sibling relationships set up patterns that last a lifetime.

Read more